Analysis from a thrilling ninth day as the Tour raced along the famous cobbles to Roubaix
An emotional win for John Degenkolb
It’s been a long journey for John Degenkolb since the horrific crash he suffered on a training ride at the start of 2016.
Although he managed to return to racing a few months later, the German has in the subsequent years fallen short of the extraordinary form that saw him win both Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in his last season before the crash.
Just when it seemed as though we’d never again see the Degenkolb of old, however, he produced an exceptional display on the cobbles, joining the yellow jersey of Greg van Avermaet (BMC) and Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors) on the penultimate section of pave, and staying composed to use his superior sprint for the win.
Even during his prime years, a Tour de France stage was something that eluded Degenkolb, who finished second in a total of five stages between 2013-2015, and once again in 2017, before finally winning today.
With all this in mind, it’s easy to understand Degenkolb’s deeply emotional reaction at the finish. Given all he’s been through, his success today will be popular among fans across the world.
Most GC riders survive the stage intact
For all the chaos, for all the carnage, for all the crashes, there was surprisingly little change in the GC once the dust had settled.
Almost every major GC contender seemed to spend some time either out the back and / or suffer a crash or puncture, yet come the end of the stage most finished in a substantial group of several dozen riders.
Present in that group was Chris Froome (Sky), despite crashing (relatively softly) on sector 8; Mikel Landa (Movistar) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r), who had looked set to lose time before a speedy late chase saw their group catch back up to the peloton; and Dan Martin (UAE Emirates), resurgent after yesterday’s crash, and who even managed to gain time by claiming bonus seconds at the intermediate sprint.
The most significant incident in the GC actually occured before a cobblestone had been ridden, with Richie Porte (BMC) abandoning after a crash early in the day, much like Chris Froome four years ago.
The only major GC favorite to lose significant time was Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First). Last year’s runner-up is now 2-53 adrift having been unable to bridge back to the peloton following a crash, a deficit that will be difficult to bridge but not big enough yet to end his GC ambitions.
Romain Bardet survives nightmare day
Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) endured the kind of day that every GC rider in the race will have been dreading the hellish cobblestones might serve up.
Having re-conned the cobbles earlier this year by racing Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and as a rider praised for his great bike-handling, Bardet might have been one of the GC riders to take the race on against the others.
But things certainly didn’t shape up that way. The day started badly when he had to stop three times for a puncture and two bike changes over the first few sectors, then preceded to get worse when he punctured again on sector nine.
Somehow, after eventually making it back into the peloton after a long chase, he proceeded to suffer yet another puncture with just 6km to go, and it was only down to some exceptional work from his teammates (and maybe, allegedly, some motorbike assistance) that he managed to make it back again and limit his losses to just seven seconds.
It could be argued that in such circumstances you make your own luck, and perhaps Bardet was riding too much in the gutter, where the risks of puncturing are greater?
But such a judgment would be very harsh. Ultimately, Bardet – as well as his very impressive team – did very well to survive the stage with their GC hopes in tact.
BMC see GC hopes go up in smoke
Everything had been going so well for BMC. The team had enjoyed the collective thrill of winning the team time trial stage, had spent most of the week in control of the yellow jersey through Greg van Avermaet, and had Richie Porte in a strong position on GC.
But the team’s long term plans for the Tour were dramatically scuppered when Porte crashed and broke his collarbone, forcing the Australian to yet again abandon the Tour having looked in good enough form to challenge for the overall – a pattern that has bee frustratingly familiar throughout his Grand Tour career.
Worse still, BMC’s plan B went up in smoke when Tejay van Garderen crashed and finished over five minutes down, and the stage even ended in disappointment when Van Avermaet was out-sprinted to the line by Degenkolb for the win.
On the bright side, the Belgian not only defended the yellow jersey, but extended his lead to 43 seconds ahead of Geraint Thomas (Sky).
But it’s likely the team will only have one more stage in control of the jersey as the Tour reaches the Alps following tomorrow’s rest day, after which they’ll need to regroup and devise a new strategy for how to ride for the rest of the race.
Thrilling drama or farce?
The stage undoubtedly produced a ton of drama, with barely a minute going by without some sort of incident taking place on the road.
But most of that drama was confined to crashes and mechanicals. Unlike most editions of the real Paris-Roubaix, or even the Tour’s visit to the cobblestones of northern France in 2014, there wasn’t actually much action off the front of the peloton, with most selections being forced through crashes rather than attacks, until the trio of Degenkolb, Lampaert and Van Avermaet broke clear.
A Tour de France stage should test riders in many different ways, and it’s great to see pavé included in the route. But the sheer number of crashes, with so many riders with so little experience of riding in this environment, it did threaten to become something of a farce.
At times it felt more like a lottery in which the winners were those who managed to avoid incident, rather than a test of bravery and skill.
There are plenty of examples of the Tour being boosted by a cobbled stage like today – but this particularly stage was perhaps a little too extreme for the mix of riders gathered to take part.